A fast-moving grass fire decimated 11 houses on Oak Knoll Drive Tuesday evening, leaving residents shaken and a strip of smoldering lots in south Ashland.
As the dark smoke and ash from the destroyed homes spread over the city Tuesday evening, residents remained on high alert and firefighters continued to monitor the area on both sides of Interstate 5 where fire erupted.
"This was a very, very fast moving fire, and it was very challenging getting all the resources here," said Margueritte Hickman, public information officer with Ashland Fire & Rescue. "I know there's the frustrating side from the public's point of view and I feel for the poor folks who lost their homes, but I truly believe that all of the fire agencies involved did their best to respond to this."
Many of the houses that burned were in the 800 and 900 blocks of Oak Knoll Drive, on the side of the street adjacent to the freeway, where the addresses have odd numbers. Three houses were damaged in the blaze, said Chris Chambers, public information officer with Ashland Fire & Rescue.
"We were praying that it would stop," said Cindy Rees, who lives in the 500 block of Oak Knoll Drive. "I was praying hard, praying that everyone got out OK and I think everyone did. I couldn't believe how quick it went. I was knocking on doors telling people to get out."
Firefighters had received no reports of injuries due to the blaze as of Tuesday evening, Hickman said.
The fire on the west side of the freeway was contained at 6 p.m. and the fire on the east side by 8:30 p.m., Chambers said.
The first reports of fire in brittle brush behind an Arco gas station on Ashland Street, adjacent to the southbound Interstate-5 onramp, came at 4:49 p.m., Hickman said. Transients have been known to camp in the area, but the cause of the fire remains under investigation, officials said.
Within about 5 minutes, the fire had jumped across Washington Street and engulfed a large barn and a trailer, which is believed to have been abandoned, Hickman said.
"It was challenging as we had winds that were definitely pushing the fire, and, today, that hurt us," she said.
Minutes later, fire was reported on the other side of I-5, near the Oak Knoll subdivision.
The Oak Knoll neighborhood, which includes dozens of homes, was evacuated. By 9 p.m. officials had lifted most of the evacuations in the area, but evacuation orders were still in effect for residents of Oak Knoll Drive between both intersections of Twin Pines Circle.
Fire agencies in Jackson and Josephine counties responded to the blaze. About 75 firefighters and 20 vehicles were on the scene Tuesday evening, along with two water-dropping helicopters, Hickman said.
The American Red Cross established a respite center at the Ashland Grove community center, 1195 E. Main St. People forced from their homes due to the fire may be eligible to receive financial assistance for hotel accommodations.
As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, one family of five had received assistance, officials said.
The city's Community Emergency Response Team remained active in the Oak Knoll area and was providing assistance to fire crews.
Fire crews were planning to be on the scene throughout the night patrolling the area in case of flare ups from burning embers.
"Based on my professional experience, we'll have people out through the night," Hickman said. "I don't think we're going to be leaving anytime soon."
Fire officials are asking people not to enter the area, as fire operations are still underway and because the air quality remains poor, due to the amount of smoke.
In addition to the barn and trailer, the fire on the Washington Street side of the freeway burned 6 acres of grass and blackberry bushes, Hickman said.
Firefighters were mopping up the area Tuesday night, as it continued to smolder. The nearby business park, which includes the Mt. Ashland Ski Park offices, was saved from the blaze.
For more information on the fire, call the city's wildfire hotline at 541-552-2490 or visit the city's website, www.ashland.or.us. Those who lost their homes in the fire or who have been otherwise affected can contact the American Red Cross at 541-779-3773 or www.soredcross.org.
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.